Last week’s UN meetings in New York prompted a flurry of papers, speeches, documents, announcements and articles about development in general, and the Millennium Development Goals in particular. There seem to be three emerging development narratives which are not obviously completely compatible. I’ll summarize them here, and in a later post I’ll look at whether there they can be brought together into a coherent synthesis.
Narrative 1: Glass half full: we need a big heave
The dominant story from the summit was that development can be achieved if the world would only come together with a big heave. On this view, the glass is half full. We have made good progress towards the MDGs (supported by the new MDG report card by ODI; and their excellent new Development Progress Stories website); and with more money, we can do more. Jeff Sachs, whose Millennium Villages Project exemplifies the idea of a big, coordinated push, called in the FT for aid to be scaled up through pooled donor funding, “to scale up what has been proven to work”. (Oddly, he chose the Global Fund rather than the World Bank as his example of effective multilateral institution.)
A new Commission for Africa report, Still Our Common Interest, agrees. The original 2005 report was probably the most authoritative (certainly the most weighty) argument for a big heave; and it concluded (among other things) that donors should treble their aid to Africa. The updated 2010 report reiterates that view, celebrates the progress that has been made, and calls for donors to increase their aid, including – very oddly – a proposal for a new Global Fund for Education.
Probably the biggest announcement this week, which sits squarely in the big heave narrative, was for a new UN Global Strategy for Women and Children’s Health. As I argued here the other day, the focus on women and children’s health is welcome, but this is no strategy: it is another list of spending commitments, which the UN press release says is worth $40 billion. The only interesting feature of it is that it lists commitments by private companies and NGOs as well as official donors. All very big heave; all very retro.
Narrative 2: More accountability leads to better institutions
While the UN institutions and the NGOs promote the big heave, donor governments, particularly the US and UK, are beginning to tell a different story which focuses on the need for more transparent and accountable institutions, both in developing countries and in the international development system. This was most evident in President Obama’s speech which announced a new US development strategy. President Obama explicitly distanced himself from the big heave:
“This is the reality we must face — that if the international community just keeps doing the same things the same way, we may make some modest progress here and there, but we will miss many development goals.”
Both the US and the UK government argue that the efforts of donors should be measured not by what is spent, but by what is achieved, both by aid and by other policies. Cynics might think this is preparing the ground for aid cuts in the face of tight government budgets, though this does not appear to be the motive of the UK government which has committed to increasing aid to 0.7% of GDP by 2013.
The emphasis in the new US policy on growth as the permanent path out of poverty is not as new as the President’s speech implies; but the renewed emphasis will be welcome to those who think that the importance of growth is sometimes forgotten. As Lant Pritchett writes:
The “development is about more than growth” backlash, which had important elements of truth, easily got carried away into “development isn’t at all about growth” and it is good to see economic growth back front and center of development objectives.
A more novel feature of the new US policy is the emphasis on investing in systems and institutions, for service delivery, public administration, and other government functions, and the importance of country ownership. This is new for the US. For many European donors it is this reasoning that brought them to give more of their aid through governments as budget support, so this new US approach will be seen as a welcome conversion.
What is striking about this narrative is the emphasis it puts on transparency and accountability as ways to make institutions work better. President Obama set out the argument in his General Assembly speech the following day:
The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble and by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change and by free media that held the powerful accountable. … In all parts of the world, we see the promise of innovation to make government more open and accountable. Now, we must build on that progress. And when we gather back here next year, we should bring specific commitments to promote transparency; to fight corruption; to energize civic engagement; and to leverage new technologies so that we strengthen the foundation of freedom in our own countries, while living up to ideals that can light the world.
This emphasis on accountability seems to resonate closely with the approach of the UK Government. The UK International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, set out a similar argument in his first major speech, in which he emphasized outputs and outcomes rather than inputs, and launched the new UK Aid Transparency Guarantee. Paul Collier and Jamie Drummond, writing in the Guardian, make a similar point about the need for transparency and accountability in the use of natural resources.
The 32 page outcome document, Keeping the Promise, sets out the usual long list of activities which “with increased political commitment .. could be replicated and scaled up for accelerating progress”. But experienced communiqué watchers (like Lawrence Haddad) also detect a new theme: the need for more citizen-led monitoring of delivery. For example, the outcome document calls on donors to:
[Work] towards greater transparency and accountability in international development cooperation, in both donor and developing countries, focusing on adequate and predictable financial resources as well as their improved quality and targeting; …. To build on progress achieved in ensuring that ODA is used effectively, we stress the importance of democratic governance, improved transparency and accountability, and managing for results.
Until now, I think many people working in the development community have seen transparency as an add-on, at best a way of retaining public support for aid while they get on with figuring out how to use the aid money wisely (and at worst an annoying additional bureaucratic burden). Perhaps I am tempted to read too much into these speeches, because my day job is working towards more transparent and accountable institutions, but it was striking to see Raj Shah, Administrator of USAID, talking about the use of new media to build an online platform to help the government to reach its development goals. I think it is now clear that, for the US and UK at least, transparency and accountability will play a more central role in their development strategies, both as drivers of change in developing countries, and forces for improvements in the effectiveness of development agencies and institutions.
A sign that this narrative is beginning to take shape is that it is already under attack. In an interesting article in The New Republic, David Rieff is sceptical of the idea that donor nations can offer a path out of poverty:
The problem is not with the analysis but rather with the president’s implicit claim that we know how to offer peoples and nations such a path. … The stark fact is that only if one fetishizes the idea of civil society as a kind of universal ideological solvent, and believes that, in tandem with scientific innovation, the road to our collective salvation is now open to us, can such optimism be justified.
An interesting feature of this narrative is that it emphasizes the need for a wider range of instruments (known either as beyond aid or – ghastly term – policy coherence). For example, in his speech, President Obama said:
Development is helping nations to actually develop — moving from poverty to prosperity. And we need more than just aid to unleash that change. We need to harness all the tools at our disposal — from our diplomacy to our trade policies to our investment policies.
Andrew Mitchell’s speech in June said something similar:
21st century development is a complex tapestry of trade, investment and enterprise, climate change, economic growth, debt relief, financial services, intellectual property and advancing new technologies.
Bill Easterly argued in the pages of the FT that trade, not aid, is needed to promote development. I’ve argued elsewhere that we don’t know very much about whether and how aid promotes economic and development, but we do know that it enables people to live better lives while that transformation is taking place. So it may be that these beyond aid policies are the best hope for promoting development, while aid should focus primarily on improving lives in the meantime.
Narrative 3: The challenge is increasingly inequality, not absolute poverty
In my view, by far the most interesting and important paper to be published around the summit was The World’s Poor Aren’t Where We Think They Are, by Andy Sumner from IDS. Here’s the key conclusion:
In 1990, we estimate that 93 per cent of the world’s poor people lived in low income countries. In contrast, in 2007 we estimate that three-quarters of the world’s approximately 1.3bn poor people now live in middle-income countries (MICs) and only about a quarter of the world’s poor – about 370 million people live in the remaining 39 low-income countries, which are largely in sub-Saharan Africa.
The paper also shows that just 12 percent of the world’s poor live in fragile low-income countries. Take a look at this Guardian data visualisation tool.
This change in the reality on the ground has profound implications for development policy, and my sense is that the discussion in New York is not yet grappling with these issues. Readers of Paul Collier’s book The Bottom Billion will recall his analysis that the world’s poorest people lived in about 50 very poor countries which he said were stuck in a series of poverty traps. Policy should be focused on helping those countries to escape that trap. But if three quarters of the world’s poor live in middle income countries, the challenge is to reduce inequality in these countries. The figures suggest that the biggest causes of poverty are not lack of development in the country as a whole, but political, economic and social marginalisation of particular groups in countries that are otherwise doing quite well.
It is not clear that additional resources from abroad are an important part of the answer to this. At The Guardian, Jonathan Glennie says:
The world needs to find new ways to help other countries respond to persistant poverty and increasing inequality. The era of aid as we know it is ending. Let’s hope that a new era of development cooperation takes its place.
For some people this suggests that we should reconceptualise development as the ability of all the world’s citizens to live decent lives, rather a problem of economic industrialisation of poor countries. This view has the advantage of focusing on people and communities, rather than countries. A recurring theme of the Chronic Poverty conference, which took place just before the MDG Summit, was the right of all citizens to a basic standard of living, and there is growing interest in the possible role of various kinds of social protection (social safety-nets, conditional and unconditional cash transfers, family grants and so on).
… a new narrative, based on a vision of a world in which people can resolve their differences without violence, while continuing to make equitable social and economic progress, and without lessening the opportunities for their neighbours or future generations to do the same. This vision would be both enabled and recognisable by five core factors: equal access to justice, political voice, security, economic opportunity and well-being. These would in their turn be underpinned by a self-reinforcing set of values and institutions.
On this view, poverty is a problem of political and economic marginalisation which can affect communities within industrialised, industrialising and low income countries. It calls for a different kind of policy agenda, which is as much to do with empowerment and political voice as the transfer of resources and investment in public services.
These seem to be three quite different views of development. There is a substantial gap between advocating a big heave of more aid to ignite a cycle of industrialisation in the poorest countries, a focus on more transparent and accountable institutions in developing countries and in the development system, and political change that protects the rights of society’s most marginalised groups in whatever country they happen to live.
But while there are tensions and trade-offs, these views are not intrinsically contradictory, and in a subsequent post I’ll look at how these three narratives can be stitched together into a coherent whole.